Film Review: Susan Slade (dir by Delmer Daves)


Shortly after this 1961 film begins, 17 year-old Susan Slade (Connie Stevens) announces, “We’ve been sinful!”

She’s talking to her first lover, Conn White (Grant Williams).  You would think that anyone — even someone as unbelievably naive and innocent as Susan Slade — would know better than to ever trust someone named Conn White but no.  From the minute that Conn and Susan met on an ocean liner heading from South America to California, it was love at first sight.  In fact, Susan was so sure of her love that she spent the night in Conn’s cabin, fully knowing that it would mean surrendering her status as an Eisenhower era good girl.

Conn laughs off her concerns about sin.  He also tells her that it makes perfect sense for her not to tell her parents (played by Dorothy McGuire and Lloyd Nolan).  “When we’re married,” he asks, “are you going to tell your mother every time that we make love?”

Wow, Conn still wants to get married even though he’s already had sex with her!?  And he’s also extremely wealthy and stands to inherit control of a multinational corporation!  He sounds like the perfect guy!  Way to go, Susan!

Unfortunately, it turns out that Conn does have one flaw.  He really, really likes to go mountain climbing.  In fact, he’s planning on scaling fearsome old Mt. McKinley.  While Susan and her family settle into life in Monterey, California, Conn heads up to Alaska.  He promises Susan that he’ll keep in touch but, when she doesn’t hear from him, she fears the worse.  Has he abandoned her?  Was he lying when he said he wanted to get married?  Then one day, she gets a call from Conn’s father, informing her that Conn fell off the mountain and died.  Susan’s almost father-in-law tells her that Conn’s body cannot be retrieved from the mountain.  Though it’s neither confirmed nor denied by the film, I decided that this was because Conn faked his own death to get out of having to spend any more time listening to Susan talk about sin.

Anyway, Susan’s single again but, fortunately, she does not lack for suitors.  For instance, there’s the spoiled Wells Corbett (Bert Convy), who is kind of shallow and arrogant but who has a lot of money.  And then there’s Hoyt Brecker (played, in reliably vacuous style, by Troy Donahue), who is poor but honest and who is also an aspiring writer.  “Someday,” Susan declares,”they’ll say that Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Hoyt Brecker wrote here!”  Who will Susan chose?  The sensitive artist who loves her unconditionally or the arrogant rich boy who smirks his way through the whole film?

Complicating matters is the fact that Susan is …. pregnant!  That’s right, this is another one of those movies from the early 60s where having sex outside of marriage always leads to an unplanned pregnancy.  And, because this movie is from 1961, the only solution is for the Slades to move down to Guatemala for two years, just so they can fool the people on Monterey into believing that the baby is actually McGuire’s and that Susan Slade is not an unwed mother but is instead an overprotective older sister.  Will either of Susan’s two suitors be waiting for her when she and her family return to California?

Now, please don’t get me wrong.  I do understand that there’s a big difference between 1961 and 2019 and that there used to be a lot more scandal attached to sex outside of marriage and unwed pregnancy.  In fact, I guess that difference is really the only thing that makes Susan Slade interesting to a modern viewer.  As soon as we see that this film was directed by Delmer Daves (the poor man’s Douglas Sirk) and that it stars Troy Donahue, we know who poor Susan is going to end up with so it’s not like there’s any real surprises lurking in the film’s plot.  And none of the actors, though Connie Stevens sometimes to be trying, seems to be that invested in the film’s story.  Instead, Susan Slade is mostly useful of a time capsule of the time in which it was made, a time when sex outside of marriage was unironically “sinful” and the only possible punishment was either pregnancy, death, or both.  Indeed, Susan Slade is less concerned about the hypocrisy of a society that would force Susan to lie about her new “brother” and more about whether bland lunkhead Troy Donaue will still be willing to marry Susan even if she’s no longer eligible to wear white at their wedding.  The film seems to be asking, “After being sinful, can Susan Slade become a good girl again?”  As a movie, it’s fairly turgid but as a cultural artifact of a time in which everyone was obsessed with sex but no one was willing to talk about it, Susan Slade is occasionally fascinating.

Poor Susan Slade!  If only she had gotten pregnant in a 1971 film instead of one made in 1961, her story could have been so different.  But no, she was sinful in the early 60s and that means she’ll be have to settle for Troy Donahue.

 

Film Review: Palm Springs Weekend (dir by Norman Taurog)


The 1963 film Palm Springs Weekend asks the question, “When is a beach film not a beach film?”

When it takes place in the freaking desert!

That’s right, Palm Springs Weekend takes place in the middle of the California desert.  There’s no ocean in sight nor are there any beaches on which to frolic.  Instead, there’s just a cheap motel and a swimming pool.  That said, Palm Springs Weekend pretty much follows the same formula as all of the beach films that were released in the early 60s.  A group of college students hop on a bus and head off for the weekend.  One student is wacky.  One student is rich, wild, and dangerous to know.  And, of course, one student is clean-cut, responsible, boring, asexual, and studious and all about doing the right thing.

Troy Donahue, the blandest teen idol of all time, plays the clean-cut student.  His name is Jim and he’s a college basketball star.  Even when he’s on the bus traveling to Palm Springs, he’s still got a book to study.  Jim’s the type who wears a suit and a tie to the pool.  He ends up falling in love with Bunny Dixon (Stefanie Powers) and the two of them spend a lot of time talking about sex in the most chaste way possible.  Bunny’s father (played by Andrew Duggan) is the chief of police and he doesn’t want any crazy college kids causing trouble in his town!  Well, it’s a pretty good thing that all he has to worry about is Troy Donaue asking his daughter if she wants to take a moonlight stroll in the middle of the desert.

(Trust me.  I’ve spent enough time in the desert to know that the last thing you want to do when you live near rattlesnakes is take a moonlight stroll.)

Jim’s best friend is Biff (Jerry Van Dyke).  Biff is the wacky college student, which means that he plays the ukulele and he gets all the comedic moments.  In this film, that amounts to getting babysitting an annoying boy and, at one point, falling into an extremely sudsy pool.  Luckily, Jim’s there to deliver CPR, which leads to soap bubbles floating out of Biff’s mouth and …. you know what?  I’m tired of writing about Biff.

Anyway, Biff and Jim really aren’t that important.  The entire film pretty much belongs to Robert Conrad and Connie Stevens, largely because they’re the only two actors who are allowed to break out of the trap of always either being bumbling and innocent or dramatic and self-righteous.  Robert Conrad plays Eric Dean, who is a spoiled rich kid who owns an expensive and fast car and who is basically a fun-loving sociopath.  Meanwhile, Connie Stevens plays Gail, who is a high senior and who is pretending to be a college student.  And while the film insists that we should somehow be disappointed in Gail because she’s acting wild and breaking curfew and doing more than just talking about whether or not it’s appropriate to kiss on the first date, she’s actually the most compelling character in the film because, at the very least, she’s actually setting her own rules and making her own decisions.  Since Palm Springs Weekend was made in 1963, it ultimately feels the need to try to punish Gail for thinking for herself but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s still a far more interesting character than the blandly innocent Bunny.  Gail’s a rebel.  Gail’s the future.  All hail Gail!

Anyway, Palm Springs Weekend is pretty forgettable and it’s never as much fun as any of AIP’s old Beach Party films.  That said, I’d still recommend it if you’re a history nerd like me.  It’s definitely a film of its time, a time capsule of an era.

Going There: Bad Blood (1989, directed by Chuck Vincent)


Oh man, this is a twisted movie.

Yuppie lawyer Ted (adult film actor Randy Spears, credited here as Gregory Patrick) is shocked when he sees a painting of a man who looks just like him.  He is told that the portrait was painted in 1964 and that the man in the painting is the late husband of the artist, Arlene (porn legend Georgina Spelvin, credited here at Ruth Raymond).  Arlene goes on to reveal that Ted is actually her long-lost son and then she invites him and his wife, Evie (Linda Blair, credited here as Linda Blair), to come out to her mansion.  What Ted doesn’t realize is that Arlene believes that he is actually her husband reincarnated and she is planning on doing away with Evie so that she can have her son all to herself and do what it is she wants to do with him.  Yes, this film goes there.

Chuck Vincent was one of the leading directors of the Golden Age of Porn.  Unlike most other adult film directors, his movies were popular with not only the public but also with critics.  (His best-known film, Roommates, received a rave in the New York Times.)  In the 80s, Vincent tried to make the move into mainstream film, mostly directing sex comedies and dopey thrillers.  Most of his mainstream films featured adult performers in dramatic roles, which made them very popular on late night cable.

Bad Blood feels like a combination of Fatal Attraction and Misery.  There’s even a scene where Arlene ties up her son in bed and then breaks his toes to keep him from leaving.  (Bad Blood, though, came out a year before Rob Reiner’s film so the resemblance is probably a coincidence.)  Spelvin, who was widely regarded as being the best actress to ever regularly appear in pornographic movies, gives a great, demented performance as Arlene and Linda Blair is also good as Evie.  Chuck Vincent was a good director, even when he was doing schlocky straight-to-video stuff like this.  Perhaps because of his background in adult films, Vincent never hesitated about taking his films to the places where other directors would be scared to tread.  Sadly, Vincent died in 1991 and most of his movies have fallen into obscurity.

Faust Goes Metal: Shock ‘Em Dead (1991, directed by Mark Freed)


Spastic Colon, an up-and-coming metal band, desperately needs a new guitarist, so much so that they allow a nerdy pizza boy named Martin (Stephen Quadros) to come in off the street and audition.  Martin, with his thick glasses and his total lack of talent, blows the audition and is told to leave and never return.  Not only does Martin lose his chance to be a rock star but he also loses his job when his boss (Aldo Ray) fires him for leaving work to audition.  While wandering around dejected, Martin runs into the local voodoo priestess (Tyger Sodipe), who offers to make him a rock star in exchange for his soul.

Martin agrees and after a ceremony involving a double neck guitar, Martin wakes up to discover that he is now an extremely talented guitarist who lives in a gigantic mansion with three outrageously hot groupies.  Martin now has big, heavy metal hair and no longer needs to wear his glasses.  Renaming himself Angel Martin, he not only becomes Spastic Colon’s new guitarist but he also pulls the band’s manager (Traci Lords) away from her boyfriend.  The only problem is that Martin cannot eat normal food and has to regularly feast on the souls of his groupies in order to stay alive.

Shock “Em Dead is the 1000th retelling of the old Faust legend, about the man who gets everything that he desires but loses his soul in the process.  A real product of its time, it’s impossible to watch Shock “Em Dead without thinking about how Martin sold his soul to become the type of musician that, in just a few months, would be made obsolete by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.  I have fond memories of Shock “Em Dead because it always used to air on HBO back when I was growing up but, for the most part, this is a really crummy movie, with a bad script, bad acting, and bad special effects.  Shock “Em Dead does prove that Traci Lords had enough talent that, if not for her background as an underage porn star, she probably could have had a mainstream film career.  The film also provided small roles for Aldo Ray and Troy Donahue while the legendary Michael Angelo Batio served as Angel’s “guitar double.”

A Halloween Film Review: Seizure (1974, directed by Oliver Stone)


seizure1Everyone had to start somewhere and, long before he became one of the leading political provocateurs of American cinema, Oliver Stone was just another struggling film school grad who was looking for a chance to make a name for himself.  Like many aspiring filmmakers, Stone made his directorial debut with a low-budget horror film.

Filmed in Quebec and featuring an eclectic cast that included a soap opera star, a former Warhol superstar, a faded teen idol, a past Bond girl, and a future Bond villain, Seizure stars Jonathan Frid (of Dark Shadows fame) as Edmund Blackstone.  Edmund is a horror novelist who is described as being “a modern-day Edgar Allan Poe.”  When Edmund’s rich friends get together for the weekend, they are terrorized by three maniacs: the Queen of Evil (Martine Beswick), a mute giant called the Jackal (Henry Judd Baker), and a psychotic dwarf named The Spider (Hervé Villechaize).  

All of Edmund’s guests face the inevitability of death in a different way.  Playboy Mark Frost (Troy Donahue) is too concerned with pursuing pleasure to realize that he’s in danger.  Businessman Charlie Hughes (Joseph Sirola) gets out his wallet and tries to buy his way out of trouble.  Mikki (Mary Woronov), Charlie’s much younger wife, strips down to her underwear and runs away.  Eunice Kahn (Anne Meachem) jumps out of a window after the Spider ticks her into using an aging cream.  Eunice’s husband, philosopher Serge (Roger de Koven), faces death with stoicism.  Edmund’s brother-in-law, Gerald (Richard Cox), is a long-haired hippie who accidentally gets shot in the head by Edmund and dies saying, “You bastard!”  Edmund’s wife (Christina Pickles) tries to protect her son (Timothy Ousey) and Edmund reveals himself to be the first of the many flawed father figures who would appear in Stone’s films.

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If not for the identity of its director, Seizure would be a forgotten film.  In fact, it seems to be a film that Stone wishes was forgotten.  He rarely mentions it in interviews and usually describes Seizure as being a “learning experience” and there’s really nothing about Seizure that would make you think the director would go on to win three Oscars.  It’s a slow and talky movie that is just occasionally weird enough to be interesting.  Seizure‘s philosophical digressions are pure Stone but otherwise, it’s hard to see any sign of the director that Stone would become in Seizure.

Still, what other movie features Jonathan Frid and Mary Woronov having a knife fight while Martine Beswick and Hervé Villechaize watch?

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Shattered Politics #36: The Godfather, Part II (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


Godfather_part_ii

Believe it or not, The Trial of Billy Jack was not the only lengthy sequel to be released in 1974.  Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II was released as well and it went on to become the first sequel to win an Oscar for best picture.  (It was also the first, and so far, only sequel to a best picture winner to also win best picture.)  Among the films that The Godfather, Part II beat: Chinatown, Coppola’s The Conversation, and The Towering Inferno.  1974 was a good year.

Whenever I think about The Godfather, Part II, I find myself wondering what the film would have been like if Richard Castellano hadn’t demanded too much money and had actually returned in the role of Clemenza, as was originally intended.  In the first Godfather, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda) were Don Corleone’s two lieutenants.  Tessio was the one who betrayed Michael and was killed as a result.  Meanwhile, Clemenza was the one who taught Michael how to fire a gun and who got to say, “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”

Though Castellano did not return to the role, Clemenza is present in The Godfather, Part II.  The Godfather, Part II tells two separate stories: during one half of the film, young Vito Corleone comes to America, grows up to be Robert De Niro and then eventually becomes the Godfather.  In the other half of the film, Vito’s successor, Michael (Al Pacino), tries to keep the family strong in the 1950s and ultimately either loses, alienates, or kills everyone that he loves.

During Vito’s half of the film, we learn how Vito first met Clemenza (played by Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea).  However, during Michael’s half of the story, Clemenza is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we’re told that Clemenza died off-screen and his successor is Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo).  All of the characters talk about Frankie as if he’s an old friend but, as a matter of fact, Frankie was nowhere to be seen during the first film.  Nor is he present in Vito’s flashbacks.  This is because originally, Frankie was going to be Clemenza.  But Richard Castellano demanded too much money and, as a result, he was written out of the script.

And really, it doesn’t matter.  Gazzo does fine as Frankie and it’s a great film.  But, once you know that Frankie was originally meant to be Clemenza, it’s impossible to watch The Godfather Part II without thinking about how perfectly it would have worked out.

If Clemenza had been around for Michael’s scenes, he would have provided a direct link between Vito’s story and Michael’s story.  When Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) betrayed Michael and went into protective custody, it would have reminded us of how much things had changed for the Corleones (and, by extension, America itself).  When Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) talked Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) into committing suicide, it truly would have shown that the old, “honorable” Mafia no longer existed.  It’s also interesting to note that, before Tessio was taken away and killed, the last person he talked to was Tom Hagen.  If Castellano had returned, it once again would have fallen to Tom to let another one of his adopted father’s friends know that it was time to go.

Famously, the Godfather, Part II ends with a flashback to the day after Pearl Harbor.   We watch as a young and idealistic Michael tells his family that he’s joined the army.  With the exception of Michael and Tom Hagen, every character seen in the flashback has been killed over the course of the previous two films.  We see Sonny (James Caan), Carlo (Gianni Russo), Fredo (John Cazale), and even Tessio (Abe Vigoda).  Not present: Clemenza.  (Vito doesn’t appear in the flashback either but everyone’s talking about him so he might as well be there.  Poor Clemenza doesn’t even get mentioned.)

If only Richard Castellano had been willing to return.

Clemenza_and_Vito

Clemenza and Vito

 

But he didn’t and you know what?  You really only miss him if you know that he was originally meant to be in the film.  With or without Richard Castellano, The Godfather, Part II is a great film, probably one of the greatest of all time.  When it comes to reviewing The Godfather, Part II, the only real question is whether it’s better than the first Godfather.

Which Godfather you prefer really depends on what you’re looking for from a movie.  Even with that door getting closed in Kay’s face, the first Godfather was and is a crowd pleaser.  In the first Godfather, the Corleones may have been bad but everyone else was worse.  You couldn’t help but cheer them on.

The Godfather Part II is far different.  In the “modern” scenes, we discover that the playful and idealistic Michael of part one is gone.  Micheal is now cold and ruthless, a man who willingly orders a hit on his older brother and who has no trouble threatening Tom Hagen.  If Michael spent the first film surrounded by family, he spends the second film talking to professional killers, like Al Neri (Richard Bright) and Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui).  Whereas the first film ended with someone else closing the door on Kay, the second film features Michael doing it himself.  By the end of the film, Michael Corleone is alone in his compound, a tyrant isolated in his castle.

Michael’s story provides a sharp contrast to Vito’s story.  Vito’s half of the film is vibrant and colorful and fun in a way that Michael’s half is not and could never be.  But every time that you’re tempted to cheer a bit too easily for Vito, the film moves forward in time and it reminds you of what the future holds for the Corleones.

So, which of the first two Godfathers do I prefer?  I love them both.  If I need to be entertained, I’ll watch The Godfather.  If I want to watch a movie that will truly make me think and make me question all of my beliefs about morality, I’ll watch Part Two.

Finally, I can’t end this review without talking about G.D. Spradlin, the actor who plays the role of U.S. Sen. Pat Geary.  The Godfather Part II is full of great acting.  De Niro won an Oscar.  Pacino, Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire were all nominated.  Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale all deserved nominations.  Even Joe Spinell shows up and brilliantly delivers the line, “Yeah, we had lots of buffers.”  But, with each viewing of Godfather, Part II, I find myself more and more impressed with G.D. Spradlin.

Sen. Pat Geary doesn’t have a lot of time on-screen.  He attends a birthday party at the Corleone Family compound, where he praises Michael in public and then condescendingly insults him in private.  Later, he shows up in Cuba, where he watches a sex show with obvious interest.  And, when Michael is called before a Senate committee, Geary gives a speech defending the honor of all Italian-Americans.

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

But the scene that we all remember is the one where Tom Hagen meets Sen. Geary in a brothel.  As Geary talks about how he passed out earlier, the camera briefly catches the sight of a dead prostitute lying on the bed behind him.  What’s especially disturbing about this scene is that neither Hagen nor Geary seem to acknowledge her presence.  She’s been reduced to a prop in the Corleone Family’s scheme to blackmail Sen. Geary.  His voice shaken, Geary says that he doesn’t know what happened and we see the weakness and the cowardice behind his almost all-American facade.

It’s a disturbing scene that’s well-acted by both Duvall and Spradlin.  Of course, what is obvious (even if it’s never explicitly stated) is that Sen. Geary has been set up and that nameless prostitute was killed by the Corleones.  It’s a scene that makes us reconsider everything that we previously believed about the heroes of the Godfather.

For forcing us to reconsider and shaking us out of our complacency, The Godfather, Part II is a great film.

(Yes, it’s even better than The Trial of Billy Jack.)

 

Embracing the Melodrama #16: A Summer Place (dir by Delmer Daves)


A Summer Place

Judging from the films I’ve seen from the decade, the 50s were a time when everyone was obsessed with sex but nobody felt comfortable talking about it.  Boys were, of course, allowed to do whatever they wanted, as long as they kept their hair perfectly straight and went out for a school team or two.  Girls, meanwhile, were divided into “good girls” and “bad girls.”  The most important thing in the world was to remain a good girl and to understand that the bad girls really weren’t having as much fun as they appeared to be having.  As for adults, their lives apparently revolved around sheltering their daughters and encouraging their sons to go get laid.  Now, to be honest, the culture really hasn’t changed that much.  I guess what distinguished 50s hypocrisy from the hypocrisy of today is that people in the 50s were apparently so much more sincere about that hypocrisy.

Case in point: 1959’s A Summer Place.  A Summer Place is one of those films where everyone is obsessed with sex but nobody can ever come right out and admit it.  It’s a film where people seem to exclusively speak in the language of euphemism.  It’s a film, about sex, in which you never see anyone actually having sex though, of course, there is an unplanned pregnancy towards the end of it.  That was the 50s for you.  Have sex outside of marriage once and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get knocked up.  You just better hope that the father is played by Troy Donahue.

(Has ever an actor has a more appropriate name than Troy Donahue?  The name itself just resonates a certain handsome blandness.)

In A Summer Place, Troy Donahue plays all-American boy Johnny Hunter.  Johnny’s father (played by Arthur Kennedy) is an alcoholic.  Johnny’s mother, Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire), is frustrated with her perpetually drunk husband and spends her days dreaming of a lifeguard that she once knew.  The Hunters own an inn, located on beautiful Pine Island off the coast of Maine.

One summer, Ken (Richard Egan) and his cold wife Helen (Constance Ford) come to stay at the inn.  Accompanying them is their teenage daughter, Molly (Sandra Dee).  Helen insists on trying to control every aspect of Molly’s life.  Ken, on the other hand, takes a much more relaxed attitude towards his daughter.  When Molly complains that Helen forces her to wear a bra and a girdle, Ken grabs his daughter’s underwear and tosses it all into the ocean.

(Uhmmm …. yeah, that’s more than a little creepy…)

Molly meets Johnny and, despite the fact that the stiff Troy Donahue generates absolutely zero romantic  sparks, the two of them soon fall in love. (It probably has something to do with the Theme From A Summer Place, a hypnotic piece of music that plays on the soundtrack whenever the two of them so much as even glance in each other’s direction.)  Helen, however, doesn’t want Molly to have anything to do with Johnny.  When Molly and Johnny spend a day stranded on an island together, Helen forcefully checks to make sure that Molly’s virginity is still intact while Molly repeatedly shouts, “I WANT MY FADDAH!  I WANT MY  FADDAH!”

However, her father is not there because he’s too busy having an affair of his own.  It turns out that Ken is the former lifeguard who Sylvia Hunter once loved…

And through all of the complications and the melodrama (and believe me, there’s a lot), the Theme From A Summer Place keeps on playing in the background.

Apparently, A Summer Place was considered to be incredibly risqué back in 1959.  Watched today, it all seems to be rather quaint and, in its way, oddly likable.  It’s not necessarily a good film but it’s an agreeable enough offering if you’re looking to waste two hours with whatever happens to be on TCM.  As opposed to some of the other regular directors of 50s melodrama —  like Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray — director Delmer Daves made films where the only subtext was unintentional.   As a result of Daves’s direction and Donahue’s “nice young man” blandness, A Summer Place is a pleasant film that never quite becomes a memorable one.

Still, just try to get that music out of your head…

a summer place, sandra dee, troy donahue